Thursday, 21 September 2017

Please Look After This Angel: and other winged stories by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Please Look After This Angel: and other winged stories by Tansy Rayner Roberts is a short collection of four short stories that was originally given away to her newsletter subscribers (which is how I got it), then Patreon supporters, and soon will be available for general sale.

Even the most ordinary lives have extraordinary moments.
A breath of frozen time.
A shabby angel spotted in a bookshop, or at a party.
An ex-girfriend turned famous poet, who wants to trap you as her muse.
A lonely prisoner, weaving a tangled web to pass the time when her lover wil actually notice her.
A soldier, exhausted from the War Effort against the aliens, making an emotional connection with her enemy.

These stories have wings.

I picked this up partly because of my challenge to myself to read 100 short stories by the end of the year, and this little collection happened to be near the top of my iBooks pile of short fiction. It also lured me in by being fairly short, and hence feeling like a less daunting time investment when I'm also in the middle of a novel I don't want to put down for long (stay tuned). As usual, I have written some comments on each story as I've gone along. Because I've been partly using the comments to tweet about the stories as I read them, they may be briefer than usual (but generally longer than the tweeted versions.

~

Please Look After This Angel — A story about an ordinary life which happens to intersect with an angel a few times.

The Raven & Her Victory — A creepy, magical, Poe-inspired story about lesbians. I enjoyed it, but wow was the ending creepy and kind of surreal.

The Curse Is Come Upon Me, Cried — A weird story. A blend of fairytale, the modern world, Arthurian themes and horror. Probably my least favourite, although I liked the imps and the idea of maintaining a sense of self when you're invisible.

Of War & Wings — Steampunk angel women fighting off alien invaders in a Blitz-like London (but set earlier than WWII). My absolute favourite story of the collection. Gorgeous and terribly sad. I suspect it's an excellent fit for fans of Roberts' Creature Court trilogy.

~

I really enjoyed this collection and I recommend it to all fans of the author's work and to fans of spec fic (more on the fantasy side) stories generally. I especially loved "Of War & Wings" which had a lot of depth in worldbuilding, to make it all the more heartbreaking. I highly recommend picking up a copy of the collection when it shortly becomes available.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2017, self-published
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: freebie from newsletter subscription and also Patreon
Disclaimer: Although Tansy is a friend, I have endeavoured to give an unbiased review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

The Tiger's Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera

The Tiger's Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera is the first in a new and debut secondary World Series. It's set in a mostly historical Japanese- and Mongolian-inspired secondary world with magic and supernatural beings.

The Hokkaran empire has conquered every land within their bold reach―but failed to notice a lurking darkness festering within the people. Now, their border walls begin to crumble, and villages fall to demons swarming out of the forests.

Away on the silver steppes, the remaining tribes of nomadic Qorin retreat and protect their own, having bartered a treaty with the empire, exchanging inheritance through the dynasties. It is up to two young warriors, raised together across borders since their prophesied birth, to save the world from the encroaching demons.

This is the story of an infamous Qorin warrior, Barsalayaa Shefali, a spoiled divine warrior empress, O-Shizuka, and a power that can reach through time and space to save a land from a truly insidious evil.

The Tiger's Daughter is told through a very long letter from one main character, Shefali, to the other, Shizuka, with the framing narrative occasionally showing us what Shizuka is doing while reading the book-length letter over a few days. Shefali is, to over-summarise, the daughter of the leader of the nomadic Qorin and intended to eventually take her mother's place as ruler (spoilery events notwithstanding). Shizuka is the niece of the Hokkaran Emperor and by the time of the framing narrative has already become Empress. The main story (of the letter) follows a large chunk of their childhood, from Shefali's point of view, and culminates in some significant events in their late teens. The conclusion sets up what I assume will be the second book so well I am kind of annoyed at how much I want to read it (and how long I'll have to wait).

This book was a good read overall but I had a few minor(ish) issues with it. The first was that my copy — a very early ARC, so this might not be the case in the final version — did not come with a map. I wouldn't usually think of this as a problem, but since the fantasy realms were very clearly based on the Japanese Empire and the inhabitants of the Mongolian steppes, my mind naturally jumped to something approximating the real-world geography of historical Asia. About halfway through the book someone mentioned that the Hokkaran empire lay to the west, and the steppes to the east and I realised the geography wasn't at all how I'd assumed, distinctly marking it as a secondary world rather than an alternate reality. I had some hints of this from the inferred relationship between the Hokkaran empire and the conquered Xianese based on the etymology of people and place names, but that aspect also wasn't made entirely clear until near the end of the book (and isn't really relevant to the story, for all that I was curious). Having the pseudo-Japanese empire be dominant in pseudo-Asia, including ruling over the pseudo-Chinese, is a potentially interesting choice, but not one which is explored in very much detail.

On the topic of the different races and so forth in the book, I should mention that there is a lot of casual racism on the part of the characters, particularly in terms of slurs thrown at other races. The main characters aren't racist, but they do encounter it often. Especially Shefali since she looks different to the dominant/ruling Hokkarans and also is mixed race. Although the various slurs are likely to upset some readers, I thought it was clear that it was various peripheral characters being racist, not the protagonists or the narrative itself.

There is also a bit of interesting discussion of language, which was examined a little. Shefali speaks Hokkaran as well as Qorin, but she cannot read Hokkaran script, only Qorin letters. The weird thing there was the way Shefali's failure to learn Hokkaran writing sounded a lot like dyslexia — with the characters moving around in her eyes — but then she had no issue with Qorin script. Shizuka, on the other hand, doesn't speak Qorin and, while she does learn the Qorin letters to better communicate with Shefali, she's never criticised for not bothering to learn the language despite how much time she spends among the Qorin. It was clear that a general Hokkaran haughtiness towards lesser peoples was why most Hokkarans didn't bother learning Qorin, but that doesn't at all explain why Shizuka never learnt. Something I would have expected Shefali to be at least a little bit critical of.

Another thing that bothered me was some of the descriptions of lesbian sex. There were altogether too many long nails, some mentioned during the sex scene, which made me cringe. There was also an issue with <spoiler redacted> which must have made it even harder/slasherier to have sex, and yet? *sigh* I spent a lot of time wondering whether <spoiler redacted> was a "not all the time" thing, and from unrelated scenes I don't think so but I couldn't be sure. I also don't think this is a letter I should've been forced to wonder about. So if you're only interested in good lesbian sex scenes, this is not the book for you (also, there was only one particularly explicit scene, FYI).

Back to the main aspects of the narrative. This is not a short book and it is a little on the slow side. I was never bored while reading, but there were only a few sections that made me want to keep reading instead of sleeping. Because the story spans such a long space of time, I was often not really sure where it was going to go next. Having gotten to the end, I think I know what the next book will be about — and I will be disappointed if I'm wrong — but I can't be sure.

For all that my review contains several criticism, I did ultimately enjoy The Tiger's Daughter and after the ending I definitely want to read the sequel. I recommend it to fans of BFF (big fat fantasy), especially people looking for non-European fantasy worlds. It's nice to have so many prominent and empowered female characters with a lot of agency, and while the story isn't cheerful by a long shot, it isn't tragic in the fridged lesbian sense either. (I don't want to spoil the end, but I feel that's important. There's also the part where you know both characters have to live long enough to a) write the book and b) be reading it.) As I said, I intend to read the sequel, whenever it comes out.

4 / 5 stars

First published: October 2017, Tor Books
Series: Yes, book 1 of 3 in the series: Their Bright Ascendency
Format read: eARC
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Thursday, 14 September 2017

My 100 stories challenge — care to join me?

Contemplating the number of short stories I have piling up in various TBR locations, I decided to do something more proactive about getting around to them. My solution is also a challenge; I want to try to read 100 short stories in what remains of the year.

I am planning to track the stories I read here every so often (every ten stories, maybe?) and tweet about them as I read them, using the hashtag #ReadShortStories. If this sounds like something you want to get in on, join me! Even if you just want to talk about short stories you've read without feeling the need to challenge yourself. The more the merrier!

A hundred stories is a pretty arbitrary number that I've chosen partly because of its roundness (or squareness) and partly because it seems like a feasible task in the three and a half months left of 2017. Maybe I won't get there, but either way I want to try. If you want to join in, feel free to set yourself whatever goal you want.

What stories?


Personally, aside from anthologies and collections on my physical and virtual shelves that I haven't gotten to read yet, I also have a bunch of stories that have built up from Patreon rewards and from various online venues. In fact, even I didn't pick up any anthologies or collections (although I really should), it would not be hard to find 100 short stories just from various free online venues like Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and many more.

As I come across promising stories or they are recommended to me, I add them to Pocket for reading later, which I can do on web, phone or Kobo. I'm hoping to empty out my Pocket reading list and knock over a few anthologies.

Also, for the purposes of this challenge, novellas don't count as "short".



So. Who's in?




Tuesday, 12 September 2017

False Hearts by Laura Lam

False Hearts by Laura Lam is the first science fiction novel from the author that brought us the Micah Grey fantasy YA trilogy, which started with Pantomime. In further contrast with her earlier books, False Hearts is also not YA. (I would be fine giving in to a teen to read, however — I certainly read "worse" in my teens.)

One night Tila stumbles home, terrified and covered in blood.

She’s arrested for murder, the first by a civilian in decades. The San Francisco police suspect involvement with Verve, a powerful drug, and offer her twin sister Taema a chilling deal. Taema must assume Tila’s identity and gather information – then if she brings down the drug syndicate, the police may let her sister live. But Taema’s investigation raises ghosts from the twins’ past.

The sisters were raised by a cult, which banned modern medicine. But as conjoined twins, they needed surgery to divide their shared heart – and escaped. Taema now finds Tila discovered links between the cult and the city’s underground. Once unable to keep secrets, the sisters will discover the true cost of lies.

This is a moderately dark book although this is not because of a dystopian setting. At least, not what I would call a straightforward dystopian setting. It's more of a utopia gone slightly awry. The government seems a little bit questionable, but it's mainly the obvious bad guys — drug cartel, cult leader — who are up to no good. Since the story deals directly with these people, it's falls firmly on the darker side of neutral.

I enjoyed this book, which was told from the points of view of both formerly conjoined twins. I think of Taema as the main character and the central story follows her as she tries to work out what happened to her sister and why Taking on her sister's identity and going undercover forces her to question who she is and what her limits really are, which is an interesting journey for the readers to follow her on. Meanwhile, Tila writes about the twins' youth in the cult of the Hearth and their escape to San Francisco.

Overall, this book is a science fiction thriller and I think it would make an excellent movie. Taema's encounters with the drug cartel are exciting, dangerous and drive the story forward. Meanwhile, the twins' origin story has both happy and sinister moments. Get on it, Hollywood.

I recommend False Hearts to fans of science fiction, especially near-future science fiction. Readers of thrillers will hopefully also enjoy it. There is another book, Shattered Minds, set in the same world but with different protagonists, which I am now keen to read when I can find time in my reading schedule.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Macmillan
Series: Sort of? There is another standalone novel set in the same world
Format read: ePub on Kobo
Source: Purchased from Kobo store

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Borders of Infinity - The Vorkosigan Saga Project

Borders of Infinity is the latest novella we’ve read in our Vorkosigan Saga Project. It falls after Labyrinth, and before Brothers in Arms. It’s another example of Miles being very clever, but is a lot bleaker than most of the stories that came before it, without as much humour, dark or otherwise.


You can read Katharine’s review of Borders of Infinity here, and Tsana’s review here.

Tsana: So this was pretty much the most memorable of the Miles novellas for me. What I specifically remembered was slightly wrong though. What stuck in my head most was how clever Miles was at his rescue scheme, going into an ice-moon prison. Turns out it wasn’t quite an ice-moon prison, though, (just a normal, slightly-crappy-planet prison) and the second reading of it left me with a different impression, probably because I stopped to think about it a bit more.


Katharine: It was certainly able to get my attention fairly quickly. Basically from the first page Miles is thrown into a prison for prisoners of war, barely has any belongings to his name (what he's wearing, a sleep mat, and a single cup) and is promptly beaten and robbed of everything. Including his clothes.


Tsana: I don’t think he’d really thought through how crappy a PoW camp would be until he found himself in out, either. Miles is very smart, but I think he sometimes walks into beatings a little too easily, especially given how fragile his bones are. (Interesting to note that by this story his leg bones have been replaced with stronger artificial ones, although the same cannot be said for his arms or wrists.


Katharine: Agreed, I think he is very much ‘eye on the prize’ and kind of flails his way through the beginning and middle of the plans until he gets what he wants. Mostly through perseverance. He IS super clever with getting people to do what he wants, but my goodness just how many beatings does he experience in this short novella?!


Tsana: A lot! And that’s before he even gets a chance to start putting his plan into motion. It’s a very clever plan too, but it should probably go under the spoiler shield…


<spoilers ahoy!>

Friday, 8 September 2017

Trees Vol 2: Two Forests by Warren Ellis and Jason Howard

Trees Vol 2: Two Forests written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Jason Howard follows on from the first volume, titled In Shadow, which was one of my favourite comic trades ever. After waiting for a long time for Two Forests to come out, I then left it on my shelf for rather a while before I got around to reading it... but at least that means I'm now closer to the eventual (hopefully) release of volume 3?

A survivor of the Blindhail Event looks for signs of imminent global disaster among the megaliths and relics of Orkney, while the new mayor of New York plans to extract his revenge for the awful thing that happened the day the Tree landed on Manhattan.

The first volume had a lot of point of view characters but, due to events, there are fewer in this second volume. The two main story lines follow a biologist who was close to the action in the first volume, and the soon-to-be mayor of New York. We only get a small hint at the end of what some of the other characters are up to (and we don't hear from all of them) and the overall story remains incomplete, as is expected for an ongoing series.

I enjoyed the opportunity to delve into some of the story lines in more depth. It was nice to get a larger chunk of two stories rather than smaller chunks of more stories, which are harder to keep track of when the volumes are so spaced out. (There is currently no anticipated release date for Vol 3 due to the creators spending time on a TV pilot of Trees.) What we are presented with develops both personal stories and the overarching story of the Trees, and what they might be doing — not that any key questions about them are really answered.

I enjoyed this instalment but don't have quite as much to say about it as the first volume — mainly because all the background and basis for awesomeness has already been covered. If you haven't read Trees before, I highly recommend that you do and that you start with Vol 1: In Shadow. This isn't the kind of series you can pick up mid-way and expect to make full sense of. I recommend the series to fans of darker science fiction and comics/graphic novels.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: 2016, Image Comics
Series: Trees vol 2 of ongoing series (with two volumes out so far), collecting issues #9–14
Format read: Trade paperback
Source: Some sort bricks and mortar comic book shop (I have forgotten which country it was in though)

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones

Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones is a science fictional novella put out by Tor.com. I picked it up based on a recommendation from a friend, and the vague belief that maybe I'd like Gwyneth Jones more now that I was older.

On a desperately overcrowded future Earth, crippled by climate change, the most unlikely hope is better than none. Governments turn to Big Science to provide them with the dreams that will keep the masses compliant. The Needle is one such dream, an installation where the most abstruse theoretical science is being tested: science that might make human travel to a habitable exoplanet distantly feasible.

When the Needle’s director offers her underground compound as a training base, Kir is thrilled to be invited to join the team, even though she knows it’s only because her brain is host to a quantum artificial intelligence called Altair.

But Altair knows something he can’t tell.

Kir, like all humans, is programmed to ignore future dangers. Between the artificial blocks in his mind, and the blocks evolution has built into his host, how is he going to convince her the sky is falling?

Proof of Concept had some interesting ideas in it but they did not overall make up for certain less interesting aspects of the writing and story. To start off, I found the start difficult to follow. The actual opening scene was OK, as far as these things go, but the subsequent section which, more or less, explained the point of the story was hard to follow. Especially since I was tired when I was reading it. I actually ended up going back and rereading a section because I realised I had no idea what was going on. I will note, however, that further into the book things pick up a bit and I found myself more interested in returning to reading it than I was nearer to the start.

I mentioned giving this story a chance based on a recommendation. The reason I needed a friend's recommendation to give it a try is because the only other Gwyneth Jones book I've read is Bold As Love, back in my early teens. Back then, I picked that book up because it had a pretty cover (so pretty, more so in real life than online) but didn't enjoy it. I thought at the time it was because I was too young to get some of the references (true but not the whole issue) but reading Proof of Concept I noticed a few parallels in character choices, mostly of background characters that bothered me the same way. So I think I'm just not a fan of Gwyneth Jones's writing and probably never will be.

That said, the middle and end of Proof of Concept were interesting enough to have me turning pages for reasons beyond wanting to get it over with. The plot centres around an isolation mission, with people sealed into a large underground cavern on a not-spaceship. The idea is that the scientists will perform experiments in a giant Faraday cage (or something, the basis was wishy-washy with intention) and the other half of the inhabitants were something to do with the media. I may have missed something, but I think it was a reality TV kind of thing, to be released after they all came back from the mission. (See what I mean about being confused? I only really managed to get my head around the science half of the premise.) Unexpected stuff starts to happen though, making the plot more interesting and culminating in a satisfying ending. I should be clear that I found the ending satisfying because it fit with my headcannon, but others might find the degree of uncertainty frustrating.

I would recommend Proof of Concept to fans of hard SF who don't mind a significant character-driven component to their stories. On the other hand, I wouldn't recommend it to fans of character-driven stories. I liked the main character, who is also a host for a quantum computer, but I didn't feel that she was enough to save the story. Not that she was a bad choice of point of view character, just that we could have gotten to know her even more that we did. Personally, I don't think I'll bother picking up anything by Gwyneth Jones in the future, but this is a very subjective analysis and you definitely shouldn't let me put you off if you haven't given her a shot (and being a novella, Proof of Concept isn't a terrible way to sample her writing).

3 / 5 stars

First published: April 2017, Tor.com
Series: No
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks

Monday, 28 August 2017

Contamination by Patty Jansen

Contamination by Patty Jansen is a novella in a new series of novellas. It stands alone well enough, but I can also see how it's a good set up for an ongoing episodic series. It's near-/mid-future SF, set on  a space station in orbit around Earth.

Jonathan Bartell is a young man, just out of university, when he signs up for the position of Quarantine Officer at the Orbital Launch Station.

He is part of a crop of students who flocked to study exo-biology when bacteria were discovered on Mars, and who are now all making their living flipping burgers, because the jobs are few and hard to get. He is lucky to get a job in space, no matter how mundane.

Or so he thinks...

Gaby Larsen is a doctor at the tiny hospital at the space station, and she keeps secrets, not because she wants to keep them, but because she is too scared to share them.

Because out in space, your worst enemies are your fellow travellers.

Contamination follows Jonathan, who has just gotten a job on the Orbital Launch Station as a quarantine officer. He quickly learns that not only is space less glamorous than he expected, but that his job is even less so. He doesn't immediately hit it off with other people on the station and a few innocent missteps lead to more antagonism than he planned for. But Jonathan is determined to do his job, and that leads him down a more interesting path than he bargained for.

This was a quick read and satisfyingly scratched the itch I wanted it to. It's hard SF that deals with some social issues and sticks go near-future plausible developments. (Although how near in the future we're really going to be exploring the solar system is up for debate.) It was interesting but not especially shocking as far as plot development went. That said, there were some interesting hints of other aspects of the world, which were not at all resolved and which I expect will come up again in future instalments. I should stress that the main story was completely resolved, however.

I enjoyed Contamination and I look forward to reading the next book in the series when it comes out. I recommend it to fans of science fiction, especially realistic and solar system-based science fiction. Since it's a novella, it's also an ideal quick read for people looking for a short foray into a science fiction world between other reads.

4 / 5 stars

First published: May 2017, self-published
Series: Yes, book 1 of ? which looks to be a series of standalones
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from SmashWords
Disclaimer: Although I am friends with Patty, I have endeavoured to give an impartial review
Challenges: Australian Women Writers Challenge, Australian SF Reading Challenge

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Borders of Infinity by Lois McMaster Bujold is a novella about Miles Vorkosigan and chronologically comes after Labyrinth, another novella. I first read it about five years ago and have now reread it as part of the ongoing Vorkosigan Saga reread you might have noticed if you're a regular reader of this blog.

Miles infiltrates a prison camp at Dagoola IV, where he plots from within to free the prisoners.

This was one of the more memorable novellas in the Vorkosigan Saga, I thought. My memories of it turned out to not be entirely reliable — it's not set on an ice moon prison, just a normal crappy but almost habitable planet. What I remembered liking most about the story was Miles being clever, but of course I couldn't remember his actual plan when I was rereading. In any case, Miles being clever is hardly something new for readers familiar with the character.

The most notable aspect of this story is that it is not really funny like most of the Vorkosigan stories are. Miles is in a crappy PoW camp, surrounded by death and brutality, and outside of the camp watching Cetagandans have total control over their lives. Even Miles can't remain indefinitely upbeat in such a situation, even when he has faith that rescue is coming. Bujold uses the opportunity to show us another side of war, which has at most only been hinted at in previous books. We saw wartime prisoners of the Barrayarans in Shards of Honour, but what we saw there wasn't nearly as bleak as the situation in The Borders of Infinity (which is not to say it couldn't have been as bad in a Barrayaran rather than Cetagandan PoW camp, just that Cordelia and Aral didn't allow it to be so).

Overall, this is a solid instalment in the Vorkosigan Saga and one that works pretty well as a standalone story. You don't have to know anything much about Miles's past to make sense of this present and there are only a few oblique references to external events, the missing of which wouldn't diminish the story, in my opinion. I recommend it to fans of Bujold and the other Vorkosigan stories and suggest that it is a reasonable sample of the same with the caveat that they are usually a bit more cheerful (albeit sometimes darkly so).

4 / 5 stars

First published: 1987 in Free Lancers, a Baen novella anthology
Series: Vorkosigan Saga, chronologically falling after Labyrinth and before Brothers in Arms
Format read: ePub as part of the Miles Errant omnibus
Source: Purchased from Baen several years ago

Friday, 18 August 2017

Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis

Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis is a fantasy novella set in an alternate magical England (Angland) and featuring a female magician. Her femininity is notable because in Angland men do the magicking while women do the politicking.

In nineteenth-century Angland, magic is reserved for gentlemen while ladies attend to the more practical business of politics. But Cassandra Harwood has never followed the rules...

Four months ago, Cassandra Harwood was the first woman magician in Angland, and she was betrothed to the brilliant, intense love of her life.

Now Cassandra is trapped in a snowbound house party deep in the elven dales, surrounded by bickering gentleman magicians, manipulative lady politicians, her own interfering family members, and, worst of all, her infuriatingly stubborn ex-fiancé, who refuses to understand that she’s given him up for his own good.

But the greatest danger of all lies outside the manor in the falling snow, where a powerful and malevolent elf-lord lurks...and Cassandra lost all of her own magic four months ago.

To save herself, Cassandra will have to discover exactly what inner powers she still possesses – and risk everything to win a new kind of happiness.

A witty and sparkling romantic fantasy novella that opens a brand-new series for adults from the author of Kat, Incorrigible, Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets.

This is a romance-light romance novella. There is a romantic storyline but it was secondary to the main story of our heroine, Cassandra, which involved a dangerous run in with an elven lord and an unnatural snowstorm. The elves in this story, by the way, are more Pratchett than Tolkien, aside from having a treaty with the humans.

This was a fun story in a somewhat gender-swapped world, giving a slightly different take on a woman trying to enter a male-dominated field. I didn't really understand why, in a world ruled by women, they were still wearing skirts, however. Nevertheless the core idea of a society ruled by alternative gender roles was interesting and the tale had a distinct feminist bent to it, even within the context of the fantasy world.

Snowspelled was a delightful read and I am definitely looking forward to reading more about Cassandra, her adventures, and her friends. I recommend it to fans of historical and/or regency(-esque) fantasy and fantastical romance. The next instalment in this series is coming in 2018 and I, for one, can't wait.

4.5 / 5 stars

First published: September 2017
Series: yes. Volume one of The Harwood Spellbook, the first of a planned series
Format read: ePub
Source: ARC from author in Twitter giveaway